Skip to content

Contrasting strategies at India show why Vettel continues to win

Oct 28, 2013, 7:46 AM EDT

F1 Grand Prix of India - Race Getty Images

The Indian Grand Prix proved to be another fascinating tactical battle between teams and drivers, showing that there’s often more than one way to get the best out of a race situation.

When the teams ran in Friday’s free practice sessions, it quickly became clear that the two nominated tire compounds had vastly different characteristics. The soft tire, or option, delivered a lap time around a second faster than the medium, or prime, but deteriorated significantly within a handful of laps. The medium was slower, yet withstood the abrasive surface of the Buddh International Circuit and showed almost no signs of degradation or wear for long spells, even on heavy fuel loads.

This all meant that race strategy, even more so than normal, had to be planned out before qualifying on Saturday afternoon.

The two most obvious race strategies were to qualify, and therefore start the Grand Prix, on the faster option tire, run that for a short spell, before doing two long stints on prime to the end; or conversely qualify and start on prime, even though it meant taking a hit on lap time and therefore grid position, before another stint of the same and switching to the options right at the end of the race.

There wasn’t much on paper between the two, but in fact most simulations had the latter version coming out as being slightly quicker by four or five seconds over the course of the entire race. Both were therefore feasible options and a few teams chose to cover both bases and split their two drivers.

You might ask why, if one strategy shows up as being four seconds faster than another, doesn’t everyone just go with that one?

There’re many factors to be taken into consideration before deciding on race plans, some aren’t always obvious to the outside world.

First, teams need to look at their two drivers and pinpoint their individual strengths and weaknesses. If one driver is clearly better than the other at looking after tires, he could manage a longer stint on options, or even in extreme cases, look at one less stop than his teammate. We saw this in Japan between the two Red Bull drivers.

Another consideration is a driver’s ability to cleanly overtake the pack if he comes out into traffic after a pitstop. Again, we saw the difference between Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber in Japan when both of their strategies needed them to catch and pass Romain Grosjean’s Lotus. Vettel did it quickly and cleanly, without losing time or hurting tires behind his rival. Webber spent two laps fighting under the Lotus’ rear wing and lost time on the track to his teammate, but took valuable life from his Pirellis, which meant his strategy failed.

The ability to deliver a qualifying lap late in the session, under pressure and without the need to do multiple runs will determine how many new sets of tires the team have to use in the race. This obviously has a big impact on strategy.

In India, those who qualified and started on options had already taken three laps of life from their tires before the race had even begun, those who were able to save options and then set Q3 times on primes, were able to keep a brand new set for the last race stint. On a circuit where soft tires only lasted a few short laps, that was where part of those four or five seconds difference would come from over the alternate race strategy.

The team know their drivers inside out and so the best strategy for one, may not be necessarily the best for the other.

Other factors that come into play when deciding how to approach a race include the nature of the circuit. The first one or two turns can be crucial after the race start when the field’s bunched up, adrenaline’s high and nothing’s quite up to temperature. If the run down to turn one’s short and the corner tight, a team might prefer to go all out in qualifying to be at the front and in relative safety, over a seemingly preferable race strategy that might have them on alternate tires but further down the pack, like Webber did on Sunday. While Vettel got through the first few turns in the clear and unscathed, his teammate got caught up with other cars and compromised his original plan just a little bit.

The statistical chance of a safety car at any particular circuit can have a huge impact on deciding a team’s race decisions. The chance of the safety car playing a part generally diminishes after the first two laps of any race. In India, those who started on option, like Vettel, would’ve benefited had that happened early on, enabling them to pit and ditch the soft tire, spending the rest of the race on mediums.

When Webber stopped on lap 29 today, he took soft, option tires, perhaps not the ideal tire for that part of the race, but he did it with a safety car in mind. If an incident had occurred, he too could’ve used the ‘free’ pit stop to switch back to the prime and finish the race on them. If he’d taken primes at the stop and the safety car had then come out, it would’ve ruined his Grand Prix as he’d have been forced to stop and take options, having not yet used them, and been left with an unmanageably long last stint.

In hindsight this was over-cautious. In the three years we’ve been racing in India, the safety car hasn’t yet made an appearance and at that middle stage of the race, it was highly unlikely it was going to. His fastest way to the end was to stay on primes and take the new options for a very fast, but short final stint, when the car was at its lightest and the field at its most stretched. In the end it was academic as he retired with an alternator failure.

Weather; track evolution; the amount of time lost in pitlane for each stop; the car’s characteristics like top speed or traction and many other parameters are all carefully considered before heading into qualifying. Of course depending on the outcome of Saturday afternoons, the whole thing needs looking at again, the simulation models updated with grid positions, another look at the forecasts, start performance and so on.

Many people, both at the track and back at the team’s European bases work through the night to give the drivers and engineers the best possible scenarios before Sunday’s race, but once the lights go out it’s a constantly morphing model and the team need to be able to react as the race unfolds.

Often it’s the ability to think on one’s feet, that sets a good team apart from a great one.

Latest Posts
  1. Hawksworth, Filippi score solid top-10s to open season at St. Petersburg

    Mar 30, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT

    HawkStp15 AP

    Hawksworth, Filippi impress on opening outings with their new teams in St. Petersburg.

  2. Experience trumps youth on IndyCar’s opening weekend with aero kits

    Mar 30, 2015, 3:15 PM EDT

    JPMSTPwin AP

    IndyCar’s “old guard” reigned in St. Petersburg, as the new manufacturer aero kits debuted.

  3. Moto GP: Rossi wins opening-round thriller in Qatar

    Mar 30, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT

    MotoGP Qatar Getty Images

    Victory number 70 of the Italian’s remarkable Moto GP career.

  4. Ecclestone considering creation of all-female grand prix series

    Mar 30, 2015, 1:35 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia - Practice Getty Images

    However, Williams test driver Susie Wolff believes that women should be reaching F1 in a more organic way.

  5. IndyCar: Bourdais opens strong for KVSH; Coletti impresses despite late stop for KV

    Mar 30, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT

    SebStp AP

    KVSH’s Bourdais gets result after a consistent drive; KV’s Coletti stars but fades after late race splash-and-dash for fuel.

  6. St. Petersburg notes: Alberico, Eidson, Beretta, Jenner score Sunday wins

    Mar 30, 2015, 11:00 AM EDT

    Photo: Pro Mazda Photo: Pro Mazda

    Pro Mazda, USF2000, Pirelli World Challenge, SST roundup from St. Petersburg.

  7. Chevrolet teams dominate IndyCar’s season opener, new aero kit era

    Mar 30, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT

    ChevySTPdomination AP

    Chevrolet aero kits dominate on debut at St. Petersburg.

  8. Ericsson frustrated to spin out early in Malaysia

    Mar 30, 2015, 9:30 AM EDT

    Marcus Ericsson AP

    Swedish driver was fighting in the points before spinning off into the gravel on lap three in Malaysia.

  9. Wolff surprised by Ferrari win, but defends Mercedes strategy calls

    Mar 30, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT

    Australian F1 Grand Prix - Previews Getty Images

    Wolff defends the decision to fit Lewis Hamilton with hard tires at his final pit stop.

  10. NHRA: Jack Beckman (54 races), Larry Morgan (120 races) snap lengthy winless streaks in 4-Wide Nationals

    Mar 29, 2015, 10:00 PM EDT

    nhra four-wide nationals

    Jack Beckman (Funny Car) and Larry Morgan (Pro Stock) broke lengthy winless streaks in Sunday’s finals of the 4-Wide Nationals in Concord, N.C.

  11. Montoya’s evolution evident after statement victory in St. Pete

    Mar 29, 2015, 8:40 PM EDT

    JPMSTPwin2 AP

    The year-on-year evolution of JPM showcases a driver still getting even better.

  12. Jeans and Ice Cream: Will Power’s brother live tweets IndyCar season opener

    Mar 29, 2015, 8:15 PM EDT

    Will Power, Will Power,

    Will Power’s brother brings the jokes while live tweeting Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

  13. Power dominates another St. Pete race from pole, but reflective post-race

    Mar 29, 2015, 7:53 PM EDT

    WillSTPwin AP

    Close but no cigar, but still a very good day for Will Power in the IndyCar opener at St. Petersburg.

  14. IndyCar: Tony Kanaan breaks up Penske’s quartet with third place finish

    Mar 29, 2015, 7:27 PM EDT

    Tony Kanaan Tony Kanaan

    Tony Kanaan earns second podium in a row while thwarting potential sweep by Penske.

  15. Montoya ekes out win in St. Petersburg season opener

    Mar 29, 2015, 5:57 PM EDT

    JPMSTPwin AP

    Juan Pablo Montoya emerges up front after beating teammate Will Power on pit stops, and then holds off a final challenge.

  16. Will Power, debris dominate halfway through Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

    Mar 29, 2015, 5:14 PM EDT

    Will Power, Will Power,

    Will Power led a caution filled Grand Prix of St. Petersburg after 55 laps.

  17. Indy Lights: Ed Jones doubles up in St. Petersburg

    Mar 29, 2015, 2:23 PM EDT

    Photo: Indy Lights Photo: Indy Lights

    Ed Jones wins again in St. Petersburg, to complete an Indy Lights weekend sweep.

  18. What to watch for: IndyCar at St. Petersburg

    Mar 29, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT

    W2W4stp AP

    IndyCar is racing today, at long last. Here’s what to watch for.

  19. Malaysian Grand Prix signs three-year contract extension

    Mar 29, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT

    F1 Grand Prix of Malaysia Getty Images

    F1 will continue to visit the Sepang International Circuit until 2018 after a deal was signed on Sunday.

  20. Rahal leads St. Petersburg afternoon warmup

    Mar 29, 2015, 12:52 PM EDT

    Photo: INDYCAR Photo: INDYCAR

    Graham Rahal breaks up the Penske juggernaut and leads IndyCar warmup at St. Petersburg.